U.S. Sues Firm That Vetted Snowden for Fraud [UPDATED]

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Photo: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Since 1996, the government has put a tremendous amount of trust in US Investigations Services, LLC. The company conducts about 45 percent of all federal background checks, and vetted both NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis. Now the Justice Department has accused USIS of defrauding the country out of millions of dollars by turning in at least 665,000 incomplete background checks from 2008 to 2012, according to The Wall Street Journal. That would mean about 40 percent of the cases USIS submitted to the government were fraudulent, and court files allege that lying about the security checks was a running joke among company officials.

On Wednesday, the Justice Department filed a 25-page civil complaint to join a whistle-blower lawsuit filed against USIS in 2011, alleging that the company regularly failed to perform the required quality-control reviews before reporting its findings to the government and requesting payment. Recently, former and current employees testified that the company would rush through work to meet monthly financial quotas, referring to the process of returning incomplete reviews as "flushing" or "dumping." 

The government's complaint revealed new details in the case, including these entries from USIS employees into the annals of incriminating corporate e-mails:

"Scalping tickets for 'Dick Clark's Dumpin' New Year's Eve!…Who needs 2?"

"Have a bit of a backlog building, but fortunately, most people are off this week so no one will notice!"

"We dumped all we could to try and hit the 1100 mark but fell short."

"Shelves are as clean as they could get. Flushed everything like a dead goldfish."

Snowden and Alexis are not involved in the complaint, but in both cases, USIS was accused of doing shoddy work. First, officials claimed there were unspecified problems with Snowden's background check before he was cleared to work at the NSA's Hawaii office. Several months later, the D.C. shooting raised far more disturbing questions about how Alexis, a man with a history of mental illness, arrests, and military misconduct, had been given secret security clearance.

The shooting led some lawmakers to call for reforms to how people are vetted for security clearances, but there was no reference to those concerns in the company's response. "The alleged conduct referenced in the civil complaint is contrary to our values and commitment to exceptional service," USIS said. "These allegations relate to a small group of individuals over a specific period of time and are inconsistent with the strong service record we have earned since our inception in 1996."

UPDATE: A USIS spokesperson responded with this statement:

Integrity and excellence are core values at USIS that guide the work of our outstanding 6,000 employees, many of whom have served our country in the military or through other government service.  The alleged conduct referenced in the civil complaint is contrary to our values and commitment to exceptional service. These allegations relate to a small group of individuals over a specific time period and are inconsistent with the strong service record we have earned since our inception in 1996.  Since first learning of these allegations nearly two years ago, we have acted decisively to reinforce our processes and management to ensure the quality of our work and adherence to OPM requirements.   We appointed a new leadership team, enhanced oversight procedures, and improved control protocols.  From the outset, we have fully cooperated with the government’s investigation and remain focused on delivering the highest quality service under our OPM contracts.”

UPDATE II: Office of Personnel Management, which handles background checks for federal employees and contractors, defended the screening of Alexis in September. Mert Miller, OPM's associate director for Federal Investigative Services, said:

When OPM undertook the background investigation for Aaron Alexis in 2007, with support from a Government contractor, USIS, the appropriate federal records were obtained, and the required fieldwork was performed. OPM has reviewed the 2007 background investigation file for Aaron Alexis, and the agency believes that the file was complete and in compliance with all investigative standards.